Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Quixotic magic

Nehad Selaiha travels to Zaqaziq in pursuit of El Ingenioso Hidalgo de la Mancha

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the Spring of 2012, after staging Saad Ardash’s Arabic translation of Alberto Moravia’s La Mascherata (The Masquerade, or Fancy Dress Party, as it is alternatively given in English) for Al-Sharqiyya National Theatre Troupe at Al-Zaqaziq Cultural Palace, director Amr Qabil likened his repeated efforts to revive theatre in the provinces in the face of entrenched bureaucracy, lack of resources, and life-sapping indifference to the extravagant idealism and romantic dreams of Cervantes’s Don Quixote in his attempts to revive chivalry in a post-chivalric world. Though the production was highly successful, Qabil vowed to give up such theatrical knight errantry in future and never act Don Quixote in life again. And yet, unlike Cervantes’s Spanish hidalgo who, beaten and battered at the end, forswears all the chivalric truths he followed so fervently, Qabil was not able to keep to his oath and once again plunged headlong into another theatrical venture with the same troupe. His choice of play was significant: in opting for Yves Jamiaque’s Don Quichotte – a play based on Cervantes’s novel – Qabil seemed to be making a public disavowal of his former decision.

It is amazing what an ingenious director can do with next to no budget and a modestly equipped stage if he has originality, a captivating text, an imaginative, resourceful stage designer and a bunch of competent, lively actors. While preserving the play’s mood of burlesque and the element of grotesque caricature, Amr Qabil, who adapted and directed this version of Jamiaque’s play (translated into Arabic from the original French by Fathi El Ashri) imbued the production with the spirit of poetry and rendered the eponymous hero, considerably younger here than in Cervantes’s novel of Jamiaque’s play, as a thoroughly sympathetic figure, more like a visionary artist or romantic poet who prefers the glory of fantasy over the real world than as a knight in shining armour. His adaptation puts forward the view that individuals can be right while society is quite wrong and seen as disenchanting. In such a situation, idealism and noble goals are invariably viewed by the worldly wise as insane and are inevitably defeated and rendered useless by common, mundane reality. No wonder that Don Quixote in Qabil’s version acquired a degree of tragic dignity that endeared him to our hearts even as we laughed uproariously at his misadventures.

Crucial to the success of this interpretation was the casting of the title role. Wael Zaki was an ideal choice in terms of talent, attractive, youthful looks, physical agility and powerful presence. He rendered the part with wide-eyed innocence, poignant sincerity and fervent conviction, wearing a dreamy look that often gave way to pathetic bewilderment. His acting, though pronouncedly physical on the whole and lightly stylized at certain points, was completely free of any exaggeration or the usual comic clichés; and yet he was most comical when most serious. His mode of acting contrasted beautifully with Husam Mohei’s fat, squat, and down-to-earth Sancho Panza and with the broadly farcical, exaggerated caricatures presented by Teresa, Sancho Panza’s pugnacious, loud-mouthed wife (Nehad Kamal),  the innkeeper (Hussein Shehta) and his wife (Wisam Mustafa), the convicts, the soldiers, the priest, the housekeeper, the clown, the magician, etc.  Another excellent choice was the attractive, versatile Shams El-Sharqawi who undertook the widely varied parts of Aldonza Lorenzo, the neighboring farm girl whom Don Quixote fancifully recreates into the elusive, elf-like Dulcinea, of Maritornes, the dirty, vulgar servant girl at the inn, of Katerina, the princess at the Duke’s court, and of the angel of death. She looked and sounded so different in each character that you could never guess it was the same actress unless you consulted the printed programme.

Another remarkable performance was given by veteran regional actor Alaa Wahdan as the Duke in the latter half of the play. In this part, Don Quixote and Sancho find themselves in the court of a Duke and Duchess who play a series of practical jokes on Don Quixote for their personal entertainment. Some of these put Don Quixote’s sense of chivalry and his devotion to Dulcinea through many tests, including the delightful scene in which Don Quixote and Sancho set out on a flying wooden horse to reach the stars and slay an evil giant with magical powers. Though wildly colourful, boisterous and hilarious, this part acquired sombre shades and a sense of menace thanks to Wahdan’s delivery of the part and the way Qabil dressed him and directed him. Impressively huge in figure and grim in manner, wearing a modern dark suit and seated in a wheelchair, Wahdan was not simply cruel and haughty, bored and snobby, as in the novel and the play, but looked positively sinister, like a ruthless dictator who, though impotent and immobile, manipulates everybody, making them dance to his tune. This not only helped Qabil’s sympathetic projection of Don Quixote as a rebel against and ultimately victim of an ugly reality, but gave the play a subtle political slant, which prepared the way for the new, different end given to the play by Qabil. Rather than end with Don Quixote’s defeat, Qabil’s version shows him waving his sword right and left in defiance and calling on Sancho to spread his books far and wide among the people in the hope of once again restoring to the world the lofty ideals it has lost.  

This final iconic image of the hero tilting at windmills was quite unforgettable, but, indeed, the whole performance was one continuous flow of powerful, memorable stage images wherein colour and movement, light and shadow beautifully combined to render the visual and imaginative possibilities of the text and hint at something akin to magic. Crucial to the realization of such imagery was Nehad El-Sayed’s ingenious stage design which consisted solely of a huge, intricate, mobile structure of connected painted flats that opened and folded to provide different backgrounds to the scenes, with a shadow screen for silhouettes to boot and a high staircase on one side, leading to the roof of the structure, on which magicians appeared and magical transformations took place. When all the flats open and fan out at the end and the structure begins to revolve, it takes the shape of a huge windmill that swallows all the actors within its blades, leaving Don Quixote alone at the top. This wonderfully imaginative set was at once versatile and symbolic, providing different levels and several acting areas, thus allowing for the smooth, uninterrupted flow of the story without a moment’s interruption or any blackouts. Its visual impact was assisted by Mohamed Habib’s and Mustafa Hozayen’s choreographed sequences and vastly enhanced by Mohamed El-Tarouti’s intelligent, evocative lighting. Yaser El-Hareeri’s and Ayman El-Torki’s original music followed the shifting moods of the play unobtrusively and was so well integrated into the performance that it was hardly noticeable. And I mean this as a compliment.

Qabil’s Don Quichotte was a daring, exciting, fascinating adventure, exquisitely conceived and efficiently executed within the obvious constraints of a small budget and limited technical facilities. It is a remarkable achievement for Al-Sharqiyya National Troupe to be added to other previous achievements they realized under the guidance and direction of Amr Qabil (for a review of some of these, see the Weekly, Issues:  889, 5 April, 2007;  994, 15 April, 2010; and 1092, 5 April, 2012). Though to process any production, let alone an ambitious, demanding production like Don Quichotte, through the bureaucratic machinery of the cultural palaces is always a big ordeal, pays hardly anything in terms of cash and consumes a lot of time and nervous energy, I do not think that Qabil will ever stop fighting windmills. If his Don Quichotte proves anything, it is that not all quixotic ventures are necessarily impractical, impracticable, or ultimately fruitless.

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